BOSTON Mitt Romney did everything he could while governor of Massachusetts to avoid having a sticky "Willie Horton" criminal case cloud his future presidential campaign.
To no avail. Romney is now being dogged by the case of a convicted killer who was charged in the recent deaths of a young couple after being released over prosecutors' protests by a judge Romney appointed.
Rudy Giuliani is trying to tie it all to his rival in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. "The governor is going to have to explain his appointment, and the judge is going to have to explain her decision," Giuliani says.
The theme, likely to resurface at a GOP debate Wednesday in Florida, harkens back to 1988, when allies of Republican George H.W. Bush broadcast a demonic photo of inmate Willie Horton in ads against another Massachusetts governor running for the White House, Democrat Michael Dukakis.
The spots accused Dukakis of being soft on crime for a furlough program under which Horton likewise a convicted killer was released. Horton was convicted of raping a Maryland woman and pistol-whipping her fiance while free.
Bush went on to win the election.
Today the images in search of a commercial are the smiling snapshot of victims Brian and Beverly Mauck of Graham, Wash., and the mug shot of Daniel Tavares Jr., replete with tattoos on both sides of his neck. Released last July, Tavares has been charged in the deaths of the couple who were found shot to death in their home Nov. 17.
Romney is trying to contain the damage. His staff has repeatedly said they fear ads against him by third-party groups, and they are anxious to avoid having the case define him to a national audience.
"The danger is that if you take it all together, it's the perfect storm in that there's doubts in terms of his conservatism on the social issues and now this adds more doubt that he has been good on issues of law and order," said Paul Pezzella, a veteran Massachusetts Democratic activist who was Florida state director for the Dukakis campaign.
"If there's one thing Republicans understand, it's appointing nonactivist judges. They run on appointing strict constructionists, they are law and order, they are tough, and now this raises doubts about Romney in that regard," Pezzella said.
Last weekend, Romney called for Judge Kathe Tuttman to resign, saying her decision to free Tavares "showed an inexplicable lack of good judgment."
He also unleashed his most personal criticism yet of Giuliani.
Romney noted Giuliani proposed Bernard Kerik as Homeland Security secretary while the former New York police commissioner was under criminal investigation. Kerik, a Giuliani friend and once his chauffeur, has since been indicted by federal officials.
"I must admit that of all the people who might attack someone on the basis of an appointment, I thought he would be the last to do so," Romney said of Giuliani.
Whether Giuliani can turn Daniel Tavares Jr. into Willie Horton is an open question. The war in Iraq, the rising cost of daily living and concern about terrorism have superseded crime as paramount issues for voters 20 years later.
There also is Romney's squeaky clean personal life and his outreach to conservatives as he depicts himself as anything but the more liberal Dukakis.
"What Willie Horton did was play into people's predispositions and suspicions about Michael Dukakis, that he wasn't tough on crime. The facts of the case mattered far less than the appearance of the case," said David King, a political science professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
"In the case with Romney as governor, he steadfastly opposed pardons, he was a law-and-order governor, so what happened is not consistent with what people believe to be the image of Mitt Romney," King said.
Romney had tried hard to avoid this predicament in the first place.
While governor, he cast himself as a law-and-order executive, favoring the death penalty in a state that strongly opposes it, and embarrassing vacationing lawmakers into enacting tougher sentences for repeat drunken drivers.
He also refused to pardon any prisoners during his four years in office, a move widely viewed as inoculating himself against future Willie Horton moments on the campaign trail. One of those denied a pardon was a decorated Iraqi war veteran who wanted to become a police officer.
That man's past transgression? A conviction as a 13-year-old for shooting a friend with a BB gun.
Giuliani, meanwhile, has tried to pivot from the Tavares case to a broader critique of Romney's record on crime.
The former mayor, during an interview with The Associated Press, pulled a sheet of paper out of his pocket listing FBI crime statistics for Massachusetts while Romney was governor. Murders were up 7.5 percent, robbery was up 12 percent, he said.
"So it's not so much the isolated situation which he and the judge will have to explain he's kind of thrown her under the bus, so it's hard to know how this is all going to come out. But the reality is, he did not have a record of reducing violent crime," Giuliani said.
Romney accused Giuliani of mangling statistics and produced his own set showing overall violent crime had fallen by 7 percent during his term.
"Mayor Giuliani can't resist embellishing the facts to make a bogus point. It's a very troubling trait," said Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom.
Romney aides say Giuliani's criticism simply reveals his own concerns about his campaign in New Hampshire. Romney leads in the polls there, and the former mayor is trying to eat into that lead in the first primary state.
Another Republican candidate recently faced questions on a separate prison release case: an Arkansas man who killed a woman after being paroled for rape when Mike Huckabee was the state's governor.
Huckabee had once spoken in favor of releasing the man but told reporters last month the decision to free him was made by parole board members appointed by his Democratic predecessors, Jim Guy Tucker and Bill Clinton.
The man was released to Missouri in 1999 where he was later convicted in the murder of a Kansas City-area woman. He died of cancer in prison in 2005.